State releases guide to school reopening

By Peter Hancock 
Capitol News Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at South Elgin High School on March 31 to announce the release of a new resource guide schools can use as they prepare for a return to in-person learning. (

SPRINGFIELD — Educators, students and families will face a host of new challenges in overcoming the learning loss that occurred over the past year of mostly remote learning as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available and schools prepare to fully reopen for in-person learning.

To aid in that process, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the release of a new 180-page Learning Renewal Resource Guide to help school officials identify and address the most significant challenges they face.

Pritzker said Illinois school districts can expect to receive roughly $7 billion in federal funds to help them transition back to in-person learning, mainly through the recently-passed American Rescue Plan. About 90 percent of that money will come in the form of direct payments.

In addition, higher education institutions in Illinois will receive about $1.3 billion from the third round of federal relief that was approved in December, for a total of $2.5 billion across all three rounds of federal funding, mainly from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

“With these enormous new resources comes the great challenge that most districts have never had to face — how to avoid having the last 12 months become the lost year for our students,” Pritzker said at a news conference at South Elgin High School in the western Chicago suburbs, the state’s second-largest school district. “To revitalize learning for teachers and students and educators, our response must be intensive, holistic and practical.”

The resource guide is the work of the Illinois P-20 Council, an agency established in 2009 to study and make recommendations for all levels of education, from preschool through post-college education. The guide was developed in collaboration with the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the Illinois Community College Board, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, with support from A Better Chicago and Advance Illinois.

Suzanne Johnson, deputy superintendent of instruction for U-46 School District, speaks at South Elgin High School where Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveiled his administration’s plan for school reopening and renewal on Wednesday, March 31. (

Just as the pandemic exacerbated inequities that already existed within the nation’s health care system, State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said it also had a disproportionate impact on low-income students, who often have limited or no access to home computers or broadband internet service, as well as students of color.

But she also said that as schools reopen post-pandemic, they will have a new set of resources to help address those underlying inequities.

“With the influx of federal funding and the learning renewal resource guide, we are now presented with a unique opportunity to transform systems of learning for students, to reshape our new normal, so that our students return to an education system that is more equitable, more individualized and more responsive to their needs,” she said.

Melissa Figueira, senior policy associate with Advance Illinois, said it has also had a dramatic impact on enrollment at all levels of education – an estimated 1.9 percent drop in pre-K through 12 schools, with the biggest declines in kindergarten through third grade, and a 5 percent decline in post-secondary enrollment.

The resource guide details 12 topics that districts and higher education institutions may want to consider to equitably address the pandemic’s short-term and long-term impacts.

Among them are ways to support enrollment and retention, redesigning the school calendar by expanding school days and the school year, ways to provide out of classroom learning experiences through tutoring, before and after school programs and summer camps, and enhancing the availability of both academic and behavioral counseling.

In addition to the resource guide, the governor’s office said in a statement that state education agencies will focus on four major goals to support schools: high-impact tutoring; social and emotional learning community partnerships; interim assessments to measure the impact the pandemic has had on student learning; and to encourage enrollment in both early childhood programs and higher education.